Coach Wally Lemm has built a title contender in St. Louis on the impious philosophy that football need not be drudgery
November 01, 1965

In the summer of1945, a wartime year in which beef, gasoline and genuine football players werescarce, the Chicago Cardinals went to training camp at Carroll College inWaukesha, Wis. with only 21 men. One of the first things their equipmentmanager, Dutch Kriznecky, did was to write on the blackboard: "ScrimmageWednesday against the Green Bay Packers." A great fellow for a joke, thatDutch. After reading the blackboard eight of the Cardinals quit.

That left 13, andwhen the bobtailed scrimmage came it was the left side of the Cardinal lineagainst the right side of the Cardinal line. A tackle asked 14-year-old BillBidwill, one of the two sons of the Cardinal owner, please to listen in thehuddle and then stand behind the back who was to carry the ball. That was thesort of key even an exhausted tackle with sweat and blood in his eyes couldread, and the Cardinal linemen survived the afternoon. They got their revengeon Kriznecky later in the season by forcing him to suit up and threatening tomake him play against the Giants in the Polo Grounds. Dutch weighed about 240pounds and most of it hung over his belt, but in the year World War II endedthe Cardinals could use anybody who knew enough not to put his helmet onbackward and Dutch sat on the bench with his fingers in his ears.

In the past 20years life has been a roller coaster for the Cardinals. They had what the lateCharles W. Bidwill called "my dream backfield" of Paul Christman, PatHarder, Marshall Goldberg and Charley Trippi and won the NFL championship in1947. They won their division in 1948. In the 1950s they reverted to lowlyways, and the few people who turned up at Comiskey Park were there to boo andthrow garbage at the Cardinals and to clap like seals for the opposition.Finally taking the hint, the Cardinals moved to St. Louis in March of 1960. Nowthey are approaching the crest again as one of the best teams in the East andmay read of another scheduled scrimmage with Green Bay—this time a real one—forthe NFL championship on January 2. But despite their return to prosperity, theCardinals are still a loose, laughing, fairly uncomplicated group that DutchKriznecky would have admired. The man who keeps them that way is Wally Lemm,one of the most surprisingly successful and quietly unconventional coaches whoever lived.

To a majority ofhis brothers in the lodge of professional football coaches, Wally Lemm is anoutlaw, a maverick, a renegade—practically an impious beatnik—and some of themopenly pull for him to lose. Many coaches make radical changes in their offensefrom game to game. Not Wally Lemm. "With all hese different defenses, theplayers have enough to think about," says Lemm. "The more you givethem, the more mistakes they will make, and errors beat you quicker thananything else." Many coaches bring their players in for morning meetingsduring the week, break for lunch, then resume with meetings and practice in theafternoon. Not Lemm. "We just gather once a day and not very early. Theplayers like that arrangement, and the most important thing is to keep themsatisfied," says Lemm. Most coaches spend the off-season months fromJanuary until July studying films, reading and writing scouting reports,drawing circles and X's and poking around on college campuses during springtraining. So what does Lemm do? In January he goes home to Lake Bluff, Ill. andstays there until camp opens in July, except for a monthly visit of two orthree days to St. Louis to see what's happening at the office. Maybe the othercoaches could forgive—and even envy—Lemm's attitude toward the off-seasonroutine, but his lack of affection for a movie projector is appalling. Filmsare what have made professional coaching a laborious, year-round job, and youdo not mess with a person's method of earning a living without making thatperson very angry.

Lemm was a freak,anyhow, when he first went to work for the Cardinals in 1942 as a dining-hallwaiter at the Carroll College camp. He was an English major who wanted to be asportswriter—reason enough to suspect him of erratic behavior in followingyears—and he was a senior halfback who broke his nose six times in eight games.Lemm went into the Navy as commander of PT 114, a boat that did not becomequite as famous in the Pacific as PT 109. After the war Lemm won threechampionships as a college coach and served a couple of hitches as a Cardinalassistant coach. In 1961 he came out of temporary retirement and took over theHouston Oilers, who promptly won nine in a row and beat San Diego for thechampionship. He accepted the Cardinal head-coaching job in 1962, guided themto a 9-5 record in 1963 and raised them to 9-3-2 and a Playoff Bowl win overGreen Bay last season. He has a chance to become the first coach to winchampionships in both the current professional leagues, and in his resonant,midwestern voice he explains that he has had a lot of fun at it. "Footballis supposed to be fun," Lemm says, "and if you treat the players likeadults they will usually respond like adults. The game is not really simpleanymore because the defenses change so much, but we try to keep it as clear,straightforward and pleasurable as we can."

Fun or no, theCardinals missed the Eastern Division championship by half a game last season,and there was nothing pleasant about thinking how close they had come. In thelocker room of the private school at which they train on a wooded hill in St.Louis, there is a sign reminding the players that the half-game cost them$7,500 each. For that money, the sign says, each player could have taken hisfamily on a European vacation, put a down payment on a house, paid for acollege education or done a couple of other interesting things, The sign windsup by saying: IF YOU WANT THESE, HIT HARD!

The Cards thisyear have that extra flow of confidence that eventually produces championships,and perhaps the biggest reason is the development of Quarterback CharleyJohnson (see cover). With the slender Texan on the bench resting a bruised leftshoulder last Sunday, the Cards were the victims of one of WashingtonQuarterback Sonny Jurgensen's hot days and lost, 24-20, to a team they beat37-16 two weeks earlier. Last season Johnson was inclined to run his offense ina grab-bag fashion, leaping from one play to the next, more on hunch than fromlogic. This season Johnson's play-calling has continuity. The need for that hasbeen impressed upon Johnson by Bobby Layne, who quit the Steelers in Septemberwhen his pal Buddy Parker did, and signed with the Cardinals as quarterbackcoach. As a player Layne was a leader, a winner and a superior technician. AtCardinal practices, Layne may be relaxed, smoking and playing catch while thedefense works, but when Johnson is operating the team Layne watches him like aschoolmaster. After a series of plays Layne will call Johnson over, talk to himearnestly and emphasize his points by pounding his fist into his palm. AndJohnson listens. It is not that Charley did not listen to his coaches before,but there is something different about listening to a man who has been achampionship quarterback. The words penetrate and Johnson, his ice-gray eyeslooking directly at Layne, obviously believes what he is hearing.

"Mycontribution to Charley has been overrated," Layne says. "Charley was afinished quarterback before I came here. I wouldn't trade him for anyquarterback in the league, and I mean that. I've helped him with a few littlethings, but the main thing I've done for him is to watch him all the time. WhenI was playing I didn't have anybody to watch me constantly and I tended to getsloppy, as anybody will occasionally. One of the most vital things for aquarterback to do is to get back into the pocket and set up quickly, especiallywith all the blitzes you see now. Charley knows I'm watching and heconcentrates on setting up fast. If you keep doing that in practice, it becomesa habit."

Layne also offerssuggestions for the Cardinals' game plan, and he has taught Johnson tricks ofrecognizing defenses and beating blitzes, although Layne says he was never muchgood at beating blitzes himself. "When I saw a blitz coming, I'd keep anend, both backs and the coach back to block for me." From his seat in thepress box during games, Layne observes and talks to Johnson on the phone."I'm afraid I couldn't help him against the Steelers when they used that5-1 defense against us, though," Layne said, laughing. "Charley askedme what to do against a 5-1, and I said how would I know, just throw theball."

Johnson, who isworking toward a Ph. D. in chemical engineering, is an intelligent and honestyoung man who likes to think before he acts. That is a handy trait foroperating the Cardinal offense, which relies heavily on audibles. Although Lemmbelieves in making the game as simple as possible, Johnson may change plays atthe line of scrimmage as many as 25 times in a game. Lemm's theory is thataudibles are easier for the players to handle than complex blockingcombinations. With some teams, for example, the quarterback may select an endrun only to find the defense is not aligned as he expected. The offensivelinemen then call code words to each other and thereby switch their blockingcombinations to make the play go. But when Johnson steps over center and findsa defense that would stop his end run he calls an audible and changes the wholeplay. Nearly all the Cardinals' basic plays are set up to be used asaudibles.

The players havefaith in Johnson this year, whereas last year they were a bit dubious."Charley is a great quarterback, he makes this team move," says hissub, Buddy Humphrey, who has been in the NFL for seven seasons with three clubsand has hardly played enough to earn a letter but is a good backup man. Johnsonalso has more faith in himself than he did in 1964. "I'm steadier and moreconsistent," he says. "I take fewer chances. I don't force a play whenthe odds are against it anymore. Last year I began to doubt if my approach tothe game was right. In defense of myself we had three sets of running backslast year and none was alike. I got confused and couldn't organize the runninggame. Last year I was hot and cold. I was throwing when I should have beenrunning. The difference this year is a maturity of decision. I can exploit thedefenses better. I presume I was immature. That doesn't mean I think I'vearrived as a complete quarterback. I'm still inclined to be overly cautious. Ithink I need a better sense of balance in running the offense. When I get intoa slump, timing is usually the problem and I tend to get overanxious."

Johnson has notbeen in a slump this season. Before last Sunday he had passed for 1,350 yardsand 13 touchdowns with a 54.5 completion percentage and has thrown for morethan 10,000 yards in five years. Johnson's fine start this season is due partlyto his own improvement and partly to the club's. The Cardinals are wealthy ingood, heavy running backs—with Willis Crenshaw, Prentice Gautt, ThunderThornton and Bill Triplett—and have the most effective offensive line in theEast. The line is young and has matured with Johnson, and the Cards use thatstrength to advantage. They like to run straight at the strongest of theopposing defenders, using a lot of wham plays in which one back goes through toclean house for the back following with the ball. They will pick out theopposition's toughest man—like say, the Cowboys' All-Pro tackle, Bob Lilly—anddrive hard at him until they prove they can run through his area, and with thatpsychological edge Johnson will then step back and throw to one of his finereceivers. With Sonny Randle split to one side and Bobby Joe Conrad flanked tothe other, defenses are forced into double coverage on both, and Tight EndJackie Smith is open. Conrad, a rancher from central Texas, has already caught23 passes, one for a 71-yard touchdown, this season. The long one was againstthe Steelers, and Conrad was cleared by Randle's down-field block. Randle,whose first name is Ulmo ("It's an old family name," he says, "butmy son is not named Ulmo"), does not exactly specialize in blocking. Whenhe cut down Brady Keys on Conrad's touchdown, Cardinal Publicist Joe Pollackwas talking on the phone to Cardinal President Stormy Bidwill, who had stayedhome because his wife was ill but wanted a long-distance commentary,nevertheless. Pollack described the play, and Bidwill's voice roared back overthe phone: "Randle threw a block! Randle threw a block!" Randle reallydoes not have to block. He has scored from 72 yards this year and has caughtsix touchdown passes. If the Cardinals cannot make it by running or throwing,they summon Jim Bakken, who kicked 25 field goals among the 115 points hescored in 1964 for a team record.

The offensiveline—Team Captain and All-Pro Ken Gray at right guard, Ernie McMillan at righttackle, Bob DeMarco at center, Irv Goode at left guard and Bob Reynolds at lefttackle—is a cohesive unit. Gray, who is from little Howard Payne College andhas twice been introduced on the field as Howard Payne from Ken Gray College,says a big factor in the line's steadiness is McMillan. "Ernie is the besttackle in the East and, with Forrest Gregg now playing guard [for the Packers],probably the best tackle in the league," says Gray. "He never makesmistakes, and it's his consistency that keeps him from being noticed. He'snearly perfect. He does his job and then helps the rest of us. If there's amix-up on our side of the line, it's me and not Ernie. There's no justice ifErnie isn't All-Pro."

The Cardinals arenear the top of the league in defense as well as offense. Their defense is bestknown for the safety blitz by Larry Wilson. Defensive Coach Chuck Drulis, whosewife is the artist and sculptor who created the facade for the NFL Hall ofFame, began using the safety blitz several years ago with Jerry Norton. He isconsidering a double-safety blitz ("Drulis is a sadist," says Layne,and Drulis replies, "Quarterbacks make too much money"), which wouldshoot Jerry Stovall into the backfield with Wilson. But the Cardinal defense issolid enough not to have to depend on gimmicks. Left Corner Back Pat Fischer, 5feet 9 and 170 pounds, is too small for his position, although he doesn'trealize that and plays it superbly and with such intensity that he has ulcers.The other corner back, Jim Burson, came to the Cardinals in the 1963 draft asone of 13 from that crop who have made the club and now have the age andexperience to form a nucleus for years ahead. The middle linebacker is DaleMeinert, a rancher from Lone Wolf, Okla. who arrived in camp this year wearingblack Bermuda shorts and a cowboy hat and driving a red, air-conditioned pickuptruck. Bill Koman, one of the league's more outspoken figures ("If I madeas many mistakes in a whole season as Sam Huff makes in one game, I'dretire," he once said), is the weak-side backer behind End Joe Robb, theonly Cardinal ever to play on a championship team.

Under Lemm'spolicy of fun with games, the Cardinals have flourished. They fly jets on mostof their trips, their average workday is less than four hours, and they seem tobelieve that what they are doing is a great way to pass the time. Fischer istypical of their want-to spirit. Once last year he hit Cleveland's Jim Brownhead-on during a sweep and drove Brown back several yards. Another time Fischergrabbed a John Henry Johnson fumble and ran 49 yards to beat Pittsburgh in thelast two minutes. That attitude is infectious.

There are somereminders of the Cardinal quirks of old. The Bidwill brothers appreciate a jokeas thoroughly as Dutch Kriznecky ever did, but as devout Catholics they firedtheir cheerleaders for doing the twist while the band was playing The NotreDame Victory March. "Sacrilege!" cried Billy Bidwill. Trainer JackRockwell leads the team in calisthenics, which is far from ordinary. Several ofthe players have formed a business syndicate to enrich their retirement years,and their first major investment was two shares of Falstaff beer. The Bidwillsare very superstitious. Stormy Bidwill missed the last two Cardinal games inPittsburgh and the Cards won both. "I guess Stormy will never go back toPittsburgh now," says Billy.

Next season theCardinals will move into a new 50,000-seat stadium on a rise above theMississippi River. The stadium is not well suited to football—as no combinationfootball-baseball stadium is—but compared to the old Busch Stadium where, froma number of seats, the fans cannot even see the field, the new park will seemlovely. And the Cards have prepared themselves mentally for nicer surroundings,particularly in the standings. "This is the second year in a row that we'vebeen one of the top clubs," says Gray. "I think we've learned how tolive with it."